Brainstorming vs. Off-the-Cuff Design

If you’ve ever been taught brainstorming, in a class or program or whatnot, you know that you’re supposed to brainstorm without tight constraints. That is, you don’t hold each idea up to your constraints as you think of it — you write down every idea you have, and then apply constraints to your list in order to cull stuff that doesn’t fit. You do this partly because it keeps the creative juices flowing while you’re brainstorming, since you aren’t judging each idea. More importantly, many of the ideas that don’t quite fit can be massaged into fitting your constraints. So it pays to get a broad perspective of possible solutions before finding one that fits your exact requirements. The best results come from having the most choices to pick from.

But if you’ve ever been forced to design on the spur-of-the-moment (say on a live team, or in the last few days before a project ships), you’ve probably skipped most of that and just gone with your intuition. If you brainstormed at all in those situations, it was tightly focused. Time pressures have a way of taking the ‘blue-sky’ out of your brainstorming.

Yet, in general you probably aren’t any less happy with those designs than with the ones where you explored every avenue, made careful choices, and prototyped before implementing a full version.

Wait, so you’re just as happy with the intuitive, off-the-cuff designs as you are with the ones you labored over for weeks or months? Hmm, does that mean you’re a genius?!

Sadly, that is not what it means. As Dan Gilbert explains, it’s just a trick of our brains. We tend to be happier with decisions that we can’t change, rather than decisions where we have ample time to rethink things. It has very little to do with the actual quality of our decisions, and everything to do with brain physiology.

The point? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your spontaneous designs are as good as your careful, well-thought-out ones. I mean, spontaneous designs are sometimes brilliant. But the odds are that your mind just isn’t being objective about the experience. So when you have time, use the full brainstorm process. Your design will likely be stronger as a result.

PS – Go on, click the link above. It’s a 20 minute video, but it’ll go by like a snap. Very interesting material. His book, Stumbling on Happiness, is a good read also. You may not agree with his conclusions, but you’ll definitely be left in thought about his raw data.

PPS – And thanks to Brenda Brathwaite for the link.

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One Response to Brainstorming vs. Off-the-Cuff Design

  1. rmckee78 says:

    As a design engineer I can attest to the truth in what you are saying. We are often forced to hotshot things and it never turns out as well, even if we are patting ourselves on the back for getting it done on time. Nothing takes the place of a fully developed design process, from brainstorming to QFD to prototype testing it all has its place.